Social exclusion protects groups from potentially harmful individuals – it is the process of incapacitating the individuals that threaten the group. This function takes two forms: removing dangerous individuals from the group and segregating potentially dangerous out-group members. Our research suggests that the mechanism that underlies these two functions is the same. As a result, we suggest a link between processes that result from intergroup discrimination, such as genocide, and processes that result from group protection, such as punishment. Our research suggests that social exclusion is enabled by perceptual dehumanization . Perceptual dehumanization allows people to observe suffering without feeling an empathetic response—it thereby can enable processes such as punishment or genocide.
My research focuses upon the fact that humans are unusual as a species in the extent to which they form longstanding, non-reproductive unions with unrelated individuals. Cooperation is a defining feature of these relationships, and it enables humans to form social groups, which can range in size from dozens to millions of people. My research examines the psychological mechanisms that enable groups of people to function together in society. This research focuses on the basic cognitive and perceptual psychological mechanisms of group inclusion and exclusion and how that enables social cohesion.
Social affiliation brings group members together around a common goal and increases their willingness to self-sacrifice for the good of the collectivity. We suggest that groups may increase social affiliation through reliance on shared values and symbols (i.e., sacraliaztion). In Elementary forms of Religious Life, Durkheim suggests that the social function of religion, the predominant moral institution of the time, is to bind groups together. Prior research has shown that sacralization can lead to values which are considered absolute; that is, they are resistant to trade-offs, violating economic norms of rationality (Tetlock, et al., 2000). Although prior work has argued that sacralization is ultimately dysfunctional because the values cause difficulties for institutions and governments that try to satisfy the values of many people (J. Baron & Spranca, 1997), it may also benefit the group by increasing cooperation, prosocial behavior, and positivity towards the group.
While any social norm, moral or not moral, may increase group cohesion, groups are powerful psychologically in and of themselves. Prior research finds strong evidence for “in-group favoritism” (Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). We suggest that moral social norms increase cohesion and cooperation beyond conventional norms – norms lacking in moral content. Therefore, in order to capture the effect of values, rather than social norms generally, we use conventions as a control. Although it would be difficult to create a group and imbue it with values and conventions, our research suggests that reminders of the shared values and symbols prime positive group affiliation. As a consequence, when individuals are reminded of shared group values, they become more dedicated group members and illustrate a greater willingness to sacrifice for their group.
My research adopts a social functionalist perspective. This means that my basic observational starting point is that human beings manage to adapt to an extraordinary range of cultural-historical environments and poses the launching-pad question: how is this possible? How do people need to be structured, social psychologically, to survive and thrive in collectivities regulated by complex accountability relationships, norms, and values?